The wind howled outside the little gingerbread house, snow laced over the high pitched roof like Polly's special icing.  Through the curtain covered windows he could still see the warm interior of the house beckoning to him like a bright dawn in the middle of summer.

There was so much he wanted to do in that moment, but the thoughts of spreading his own gloomy mood into that warm inviting house was too much, even for a man who needed it as much as he did.

He stood there for what seemed like hours, feeling the tips of his fingers and toes become numb with the frozen wind biting at him.  A soft feminine silhouette passed before the window.  He could see the familiar shape lean against the window and imagined her staring out into the darkness.  Pulling his coat tight about his body he took a few steps closer, leaving the shadow of the tree behind him.  Louise reached out her hand and smoothed the curtains, allowing her bell-shaped sleeves to fall back and bare her slender arms to his gaze.  The thought of having those arms wrapped around him in a loving embrace brought him into the open.

He could see her surprise and waited as she disappeared from sight.  He supposed she was heading to the door, but knew that she had every right to leave him standing out in the freezing winds. Given the way he'd acted the last few days, he wouldn't fault her if she did. Waiting for evidence of her decision the wind battered against his body, freezing every inch of exposed flesh.

The front door clicked open and swung on its hinges.  He could feel the heat from the home curling about him even as he took the steps one at a time.

Louise stood in the doorway, holding her robe closed at the neck.  She didn't try it force him to talk; they both knew it wouldn't do any good.  Stepping back from the door she inclined her head, gesturing to him.

He stepped in and moved past her into the hallway.  Taking off his outer garments and hanging them up, he didn't try to talk.  He wondered if he would be able to if he tried.  His face seemed to be a frozen block of ice.

The hallway was strangely quiet except for the sound of his boots falling to the floor beside his chair.

"I saved some supper for you."

"I'm not hungry."

Silence fell between them again and Jimmy made a quick move for the stairs.  "I'll pick up my boots la-"

"I'll get them."

She caught him half way up the stairs.  "Dara wanted to talk to you before you went to sleep."

Jimmy froze with his foot on the top runner.  "Tomorrow, after school.. I'll-"

"Tonight, Jimmy.  She said it was important."

Looking across the hall to his daughter's bedroom, he saw the soft light seeping from the room through the slightly open door.  She was probably asleep. He hoped it was true.  Then he'd be able to escape to bed.  He'd be able to talk in the morning.  That's the thought he clung to as he stepped into her room.

 

Jimmy sat on the edge of Dara's bed and heard the ropes groan beneath his added weight.  He settled back against the wall and tried to put himself in a different frame of mind.  His children didn't have to suffer his own bad moods.

Looking over his daughter's sleeping form, he felt a quick breath of peace fall over him.  Her softly closed eyes showed no signs of worry or sadness.  Children surely slept like the innocents they were.  Lifting up his hand, he gently brushed his knuckles against her cheek, sweeping back the soft waves from her face.  She'd fallen asleep in minutes, probably as her tiny head had touched the pillow.

Jimmy fought the beleaguered sigh in his throat and ran the tip of his finger down to the button of her nose.  A soft crinkle pinched between her brows and Dara's eyes fluttered open.  "Daddy?"

Hunching down in bed he leaned closer to her.  "I thought you were asleep."

"I was trying to wait for you."

He couldn't help the hand that reached down to playfully grab at her pouting bottom lip.

Dara giggled as she waved his hand away.  "Stop that."

Jimmy felt his melancholy mood settle over him again.  His shoulders sagged with the weight of his troubling thoughts.  The dark and dire thoughts he thought he'd left behind at the jail rose up from the shadows and claimed his smile.

His eyes fixed on a point somewhere behind the wall and felt the sting of little beads of sweat form over his temples.  Jimmy heart began to harden with the strain of his guilt, stopped in a moment when he felt two little fingers pluck his bottom lip.

He found her eyes in the soft light of her bedside lamp.  She giggled and hid her hands under the covers.  "Got your frown, Daddy."

Jimmy couldn't resist the impish grin from his daughter.  Leaning over her, he brushed a kiss on her cheek.  He felt her shift and then the gentle touch of her fingers on his face.  The stubble from a two day break in shaving bristled under her two little hands and she held him close.

Her eyes looked him over.  The dark irises shifted as her eyes roamed over his face. 

"You're sad, Daddy."

"I'm all right, Sweetie."

The wide brown expanse of her almond shaped eyes took in every inch of his face as she looked right into his heart.  "You're not supposed to lie."

He blinked back the sudden onslaught of tears that welled up from his chest.  "Sweetie... I-" He sat up a bit and stretched his back.  Taking a moment to collect his thoughts under the guise of stretching up from his cramped position.  "I didn't want you to worry."

"Mama worried last night."

With each innocent phrase she cut him to shreds.  "She didn't say anything."

"She stood at the window all night."

"Sweetie-"

"It was snowing."

"Dara-"

"You didn't come home."

Jimmy heard it.  The little tremble in her soprano.  The waver like a chill through the frosted trees.  "I needed... to think."

His mind was so busy thinking up excuses that it took him a moment to realize that she hadn't answered him.  He felt a guilty hope that she'd fallen back asleep... that he'd be saved more of her thoughts until morning.

Lowering himself down to the floor he winced as his knees came to rest on the hard wood beside her bed.  He raised his hand to smooth her curls away from her sleeping face, but when he raised his gaze he found her quiet watchful eyes openly studying him.

"I thought you'd fallen asleep."

She didn't answer, just stared at him with eyes that seemed much too much like Teaspoon's to make him comfortable.  "Dara... sweetie, I stayed at the jail last night."

Still she lay there quietly.

Jimmy leaned his elbows on the frame at the side of her bed and stared out the window into the soft snowfall visible between the curtains.  "There was a robbery at the bank yesterday."

He sighed out a breath and felt his shoulders sag.  "By the time I got there, they'd emptied the safe and had Bob Taylor at gunpoint." Images, still fresh and vibrant, moved before his eyes.  The wild-eyed looks of the men with scarves over their faces had made his blood pulse hot and thrum through his veins.  He felt the sudden swell of his lungs as a surprise.  The fear he'd felt at that moment had stayed with him, hiding in the back of his mind.

Jimmy fought to focus on the moonlit snow outside the window, but the desperate look he'd seen on Bob's face flashed before him.  He swallowed a curse and shoved his hands through his hair.  Tilting his eyes toward the mattress he tried to hide his shame from his daughter.  "I shot... the robber, Sweetie.  I shot him."

"Daddy-"

He couldn't let her see his face, see the horror he'd been through.  He knew he shouldn't be telling her this.  "He was just a boy.  Barely 15 if he was a day..." Jimmy pulled in another breath through his teeth. "...you better get some rest, Sweetie."

Jimmy set his hands on the frame of the bed and started to get to his feet.

"Daddy?"

He looked down and saw her fingers wrapped around his thumb.  Soaking in the reassuring squeeze, he settled back down on the floor.

"Dara?"

"I know what happened, Daddy."

He hung his head for a moment, looking at her tiny hand holding his, and then he returned his gaze to her face.  "Did Mama tell you?"

Dara shook her head, the soft white pillow behind her head touching her cheeks.  "Nope."

"Do you have any questions?" God knows how scary it must be for her to hear about the dangers of his job.

She shook her head again.

"Then what is it, Sweetie."

Dara smiled and gripped his hand tighter.  "Two girls at school. They wanted to talk to you, but you scared them, Daddy."

"Scared them?" Jimmy choked on the sudden jolt of guilt.  "How?"

"They said you're too tall."

He almost started to laugh.  "Well, I would kneel down like I do with you, Honey."

Dara nodded.  "I know, but I told them I'd tell you, anyways."

She paused for a moment and Jimmy settled his right hand over hers.  "Tell me what, Dara?"

Her eyes blinked and he saw a tear gather in the corner of her left eye.  "Mary and Olivia wanted me to thank you."

Jimmy leaned back an inch, confusion his only mask.  "Mary and Olivia?"

She nodded, bouncing her little chin off of the bow sewn on her nightgown.  "They sit behind me in school."

Jimmy felt a curious emotion squeeze his heart.  "The Taylor girls?"

He felt her little hand shiver even in the warmth of his grasp.  "You might have shot that bad man, Daddy, but you saved their Papa."  She stifled a yawn and settled back into her covers as her eyes began to droop.  "They wanted to thank you for the best Christmas present in the whole world."

Somehow he knew he was crying.  Maybe he saw it in the shining depths of her eyes, or perhaps the hot trails of tears down his cheeks were a good clue.  He probably should have wiped his face on the handkerchief in his pocket, but he didn't.

What he did was hold her hand in his and press a kiss to her palm.  He breathed in her scent and felt some of the hurt go away.  "Go to sleep, Sweetie." He looked into her half-open eyes and tucked her hand under the covers.  "I'll go with you to school tomorrow and see the girls."

She mumbled something into the chill night air and snuggled under the covers.

Jimmy got up from her bedside and stretched his aching muscles.  Sparing a long moment, he watched his daughter's soft even breathing lift the woolen blanket, one...two...three times before he bowed his head and let one last thankful tear fall to the floor.  "Sweet Dreams."

"Is she asleep?"

Jimmy nodded and felt his shoulders lift as his breathing eased.  "Finally."

He heard Lou's soft steps as she walked up behind him.  "She really wanted to stay up and wait.  She said it was important."  He stood there, staring at the tops of his stockinged feet, seemingly unable to move.  She took his hand, twining her fingers with his in a soft affectionate brush.

Jimmy squeezed her fingers and sighed.  "We talked."

Lou leaned her cheek on his back and he swore he could feel her smile.  "You mean, she talked, and you listened.  Just like someone else we know and love."

His soft chuckle warmed the room.  "Let's not talk about 'Grandpa' right now." 

She leaned against him.  "Then what should we talk about?" 

He wrapped her arm around his waist and held her hand between his own and his heart.  "Nothing.  Not right now.  I just want to..." Jimmy took a deep breath and turned.

Looking down into his wife's face he felt another rush of relief.  He was home, right in the heart of his world.  Letting her hand fall from his grasp, he brushed away the gentle trails of her own silvery tears.  As he bent to brush a reassuring kiss over her lips, he tasted their tears mingling on her lips and felt his heart swell within him.

Louise wrapped her arms around his waist and held him in her welcoming embrace.

He wanted to wallow in the feel of her supple body pressed against his, but there was too much left unsaid for him to enjoy the moment. Leaning back from her, he caught he gaze.  "Lou?  I should have told you what happened.  I should have come home last night and talked to you.  I should have-"

"You needed to think and let all that guilt you were feeling work itself out.  You needed to take a few minutes to listen to your heart.  You needed-"

He set the tip of his finger lightly on her lips.  "I needed my family." He watched her face change in the soft shifting lamplight and felt a wave of love rock him clear down to his toes.  "I needed to be here with you.  In your arms." He bowed his head for a moment.  "You know... I stayed away, 'cause I couldn't even look at myself in the mirror.  I didn't want to see the guilt I felt written all over my face."

Louise tilted her head to side and regarded her husband.  "And now?"

He looked deep into her eyes and felt humbled by what he found.  "I know, that when I need to set aside the pain, I can always come home."

'And see myself through her eyes'.